Children sat in awe as Little Crow of the Dakota tribe solemnly blessed a newly planted pine tree at Top of the World Elementary School in Laguna Beach. Passing out a sacred herb to students, he instructed them to spread it over the tree's soil. As they did, many children remarked at the beauty and peace of the setting.
"I can feel the wind on my cheeks," one little girl said.
"I feel like I've always wanted to feel," another child said.
To encourage environmental awareness, Top of the World has incorporated an outdoor classroom into its curriculum that teaches students about planting and recycling. Next on the agenda are lessons on composting and alternative forms of energy.
Like many adults today, children are often out of touch with the environment. Until recently, they have grown up in an age of consumption with little regard for consequences.
"Television tells us that if we have any kind of problem, we simply buy a product and that will solve it," says Kathie Reynolds, a teacher at the Community Learning Center, which is a small school within Top of the World. In addition to regular subjects, she teaches her students environmental awareness.
"When we're done with an item, we just throw it away, as if into a black hole," she says. "Young people haven't been told that we're running out of land."
Experts agree that children are out of touch with nature.
"Many children in this area can't even name the four seasons," says Amy Stark of Tustin. "They are extremely activity-conscious. Nintendo, television, dance lessons and sports all take top priority.
"Those things are fine, but children should also learn how plants grow, that birds need to eat and drink, and that elephants may no longer exist when (the children) grow up, unless something is done.
"Gardening has a variety of benefits. Not only does gardening allow children to spend time with their parents while learning about the environment, it teaches them valuable lessons about life. Planning and visualizing, sowing seeds, nurturing them, weeding out what doesn't belong and harvesting crops are activities similar to setting goals in life and following through on them."
Stark has some of her young patients grow plants in planter boxes as part of their therapy. "There are so many things that children have no control over," she explains. "This gives them something of their own that they can control and take pride in."
The key to saving our planet, Reynolds says, is in teaching the next generation to care for it. "If our children learn how to be kinder to the Earth when they are young, it will become second nature," she adds. "They won't have to relearn like many adults today must."
One popular outing for children involved in the program was a visit to Sprout Acres, an ecological house in Laguna Beach that is self-sustaining and energy efficient. Built from recycled construction scraps 10 years ago by applied ecologist Bill Roley, the house's utility bills amount to about $10 a month. All waste is recycled or composted. More than 200 edible plants are grown there.
On a visit to the home, children learn about solar heating, irrigation, gardening, composting and how bees make honey.
Roley says a visit to Sprout Acres teaches children more about the environment than they could get out of most books.
"(The late educator) John Dewey said that the things we really learn are those that we experience," he says. "Rather than just relying on books to teach concepts, if you create environments like Sprout Acres that demand participation from students, they learn a great deal about nature. I have seen very detailed and accurate pictures drawn by students after their visit."
New state education guidelines mandate that by 1992 all school districts will have to emphasize hands-on experience over textbooks.
Top of the World recently formed an outdoor classroom committee that is working on plans to convert school grounds into garden space. The program will include gathering food scraps from lunches and grass clippings left by gardeners for composting, planting fruit trees, and designing areas where herbs and vegetables will be grown.
Instead of simply teaching children theories, environmentalists are getting youngsters involved, recognizing that experience is the best teacher.
Michael Mish is a children's record producer who once performed voice-overs for cartoons and commercials. Two years ago, the Pacific Palisades resident began producing songs about the environment that encourage children to take action.
"I wanted to encourage kids to do something now, because I remembered when I was a young and listened to inspirational speakers," he says. "They would tell us we were the future, but I often wondered at what point the future began. When I was 18, 21, or got a job?
"In retrospect, the future never came. Unwittingly, the speakers put us in a state of not being quite ready. This makes children feel powerless about environmental issues, which continues into adulthood."